“If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years” by Christopher Benfey


Two famous Englishmen, two hundred years or so apart, tried to emigrate to America and failed. One was Oliver Cromwell, who in 1634 found himself in so much debt that he sold up much of his property and decided to sail off to Connecticut for a life in the New World. Unfortunately, he was denied permission to leave England, and never got on the boat, leaving historians to wonder what would have happened (or wouldn’t have) had he been issued a passport. The other was Rudyard Kipling, who fared rather better.

He did get on a boat, got to America, married an American, and stayed there on and off for a decade, until a family squabble initiated by his wife’s relatives forced him to leave in 1899. “There are only two places in the world where I want to live,” he declared, “Bombay and Brattleboro. And I can’t live in either.”

Kipling evidently connected India and America as places from which he felt somehow exiled.

If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years Christopher Benfey (Penguin, June 2019)
If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years, Christopher Benfey (Penguin, June 2019)

Kipling never rose to be ruler of England as a result of not settling in America, but his American adventures had a profound effect on literature, because it was in that country that he planned or wrote some of his most famous books, including Kim (begun in Vermont), The Jungle Book and Just So Stories, as well as the lesser-known Captains Courageous and “If—,” one of his most widely-read poems, which was originally used to illustrate a story about George Washington!

Benfey’s use of the title suggests that we should ask what kind of a writer Kipling would have become “if” he had stayed in America. Would he, an Englishman usually (and often mistakenly) associated with imperial jingoism, have become an American classic? The title is a tease, but a rewarding one raising some interesting questions, and we come to understand that Kipling did indeed have a significant impact on the literature and culture of his would-be adopted country which has lasted to this day, as Benfey’s epilogue, entitled “American Hustle”, explains. And the impact came largely with books Kipling wrote about India.

Kipling evidently connected India and America as places from which he felt somehow exiled. The connection is emphasized by the fact that two of the three of the books for which he is best-known are set in India but written in the United States. Just So Stories is a mixture of settings including India, ranging from Australia to the Arctic and even to the world of the Neanderthals.

Writers are often advised to write about what they know, and so one might think that Kipling wrote about India in America because he did not know much about America. But Kipling apparently developed an American accent and celebrated Thanksgiving (with a visiting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, no less), developed close friendships with Mark Twain, the philosopher William James, brother of Henry, who called Kipling “more of a Shakespeare than anyone yet in this generation of ours”, and Theodore Roosevelt, as well as marrying an American and taking on turbulent relationships with his wife’s family. Kipling loved hunting and fishing, as well as what many of his compatriots might have considered the “brash” way of life led by many Americans and their “can-do” mentality, aspects of America which many of his contemporaries found vulgar or déclassé.

In one photograph, which Benfey reproduces, Kipling, pipe in his mouth and left hand thrust into his pocket, is attired in plus-fours and what looks like a hunting jacket standing in a rather aggressive posture. He looks a lot more like an American big-game hunter than a British author, in spite of the rather incongruous book-lined study walls forming the backdrop to the photograph. This snapshot, at least as I saw it, is the essence of the “American” Kipling, the man who actually declared that he would write “the great American novel”. But he never did: he wrote two great “Indian” books instead, Kim and The Jungle Book.

However, to tempt anyone reading this review with Benfey’s ideas about the paradox of writing Indian books while living in America, we might note that in the case of The Jungle Book Kipling “drew on his Vermont surroundings, especially his conviction that he was living in a lawless jungle.” He apparently thought that “every American citizen carried concealed weapons of war,” as an American friend later said, and Kipling himself, Benfey tells us, saw himself as “a well-informed outsider, uniquely qualified to interpret this bloodthirsty society.” Mowgli in the physical surroundings of India thus learns to live by the law of the jungle, but that law, if you draw a conclusion from Benfey, was based more on Kipling’s idea of American social Darwinism and his voracious reading of American literature, not to forget his personal contacts with “the naturalist vision of Roosevelt and Jack London.” He was inspired as well as repelled by the frontier dynamism of America and its emerging status as a world power rivaling Britain.

Kipling would experience three earthquakes in Japan.

Kipling also took time during his American sojourn to do a little traveling outside the United States. In 1892 Kipling and his wife Carrie embarked on a world tour, which included some time in Japan. Carrie’s grandfather had been the first foreign adviser employed by Emperor Meiji following the visit of Commodore Perry to Japan in 1853, and he had played a significant part in helping the Japanese understand western (American) ways, and for Kipling himself it was his second visit.

Kipling would experience three earthquakes in Japan (I won’t spoil the fun concerning these), but what moved him spiritually was a visit to the Great Buddha of Kamakura. There it was, Kipling wrote, “facing the sea, to hear the centuries go by,” and it represented for him “a visible god sitting in the garden of a world made new.” As Benfey tells it, the poem Kipling wrote there chides the intolerant Christians who show no respect for the Buddha and follow what he terms “the Narrow Way”. He would use stanzas from this poem as epigraphs in Kim, which of course, features a Buddhist lama searching for the river where one of Buddha’s arrows once landed as one of its main characters. Benfey cites what he calls “the probing question” at the end of Kipling’s poem:


But when the morning prayer is prayed.
Think, ere ye pass to strife and trade,
Is God in human image made
No nearer than Kamakura?


And we note, as Benfey points out, that Kipling knows where the stress goes on “Kamakura”!


Benfey’s brilliant and absorbing book should become essential reading for anyone who enjoys Kipling or who wants to complete a well-rounded look at his life and work. I can’t agree with Michael Gorra’s pitch on the jacket copy that The Jungle Book “should stand as an American classic”, because it’s not about America and, in the end, Kipling is a very English writer. Most readers of that book and the others would have no idea that any of them were written in Vermont, but, as the same writer observed, Kipling’s America is indeed “undiscovered country”. His relationship with that country has now been shown by Benfey to be complex, interesting and culturally significant, not just for Kipling himself, but for America, as the last chapter shows us.

I don’t believe that Kipling actually turned himself into an American writer (I don’t think he wrote the Great Indian Novel either—Shashi Tharoor did that in 1989), as he appeared to have wished to do, but he certainly seems to have engaged deeply with the United States, and there is no doubt that he learned much there about writing and about himself, too:


If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
… Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.